The problem isn’t with actor Tom Burke, who does a better than fair approximation of Welles in that era. The problem is the petty material with which he has to work. Certainly there are sufficient real-life examples of Welles waxing indignant and/or truculent to have provided the filmmakers with good models; but what they come up with here sorely lacks. (As do the rationales of the characters working for Welles. At one point fussy Houseman, played extra fussily by Troughton, says of his boss, “Don’t be fooled, he’s a showman, busker, reveling in sleight of hand.” Come on. This is like the bit on “SCTV” with John Candy doing Welles on a “Merv Griffin Show” parody saying that in showbiz you need something to fall back on—“fortunately I have magic.”)
And because of the richness of “Kane” itself, turning over the argumentation of this particular scenario about a part of its making (the movie proper ends before the first scene of Welles’ movie is shot, after all) reveals some curiosities. If you’re a man whose idealism and sense of social justice has been trampled by dark forces ruled by a ruthless media tycoon, and you contrive to get a form of payback by writing a movie about that tycoon, wouldn’t it stand to reason that you include the relevant precipitating incident in that movie? Charles Foster Kane is never shown steamrolling a socialist’s gubernatorial campaign; rather, it shows him losing his own bid, on what we can infer was a progressive platform, because of his own personal indulgences and some attendant political blackmail. And Kane refuses to accept any attendant humiliation stemming from this course of events because he can afford to. Some pieces of this movie’s puzzle aren’t an entirely comfortable fit.
Nevertheless, when the movie swings, it brings you with it. A walk and talk between Herman and Hearst at their introduction to each other happens while Hearst is traveling on a gigantic camera dolly, overseeing a Davies picture. The staging, shooting and editing here represent Fincher at his most inspired, creating an undercurrent of exhilaration even as we are aware that we’re witnessing crummy people doing crummy things.
While watching “Mank,” I was reminded of an essay the critic and filmmaker Kent Jones wrote for Film Comment in 2016, called “The Marginalization of Cinema.” Specifically, its opening: “About a year ago, a director I know invited me to watch a movie on one of the old Hollywood lots. As we were strolling to the screening room, we passed a little gathering of elegant business-casual types seated at makeshift outdoor tables, casually listening to one of their ilk delivering a casual talk. And just as we walked by, we caught the following remark: ‘We have a little saying around here: “F*ck the director.”’ Cue a soft sound of quietly knowing laughter from the casual audience. My friend was momentarily taken aback but finally nonplussed. It was more of the usual. Sort of.”
That story is reflective of the same-as-it-ever-was Hollywood ecosystem depicted in “Mank,” only here it’s more of a chain. The bosses do unto the director, and the director does unto, well, the writer. Again: Some “love letter.”
“Mank” will open in theatres on November 13th and premiere on Netflix on December 4th.